Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Studying the endgame

I think there's a good analogy to be made between the excerpted paragraphs below, from The Art of Learning, and investing. The opening variations in chess are like short-term results and the time spent looking at everything that looks cheap on a current, statistical basis. Whereas the endgame is comparable to focusing on long-term results, the qualitative aspects of a company, and the time one spends studying great businesses (both current and historical) and how they became that way. And I think it's important because as Waitzkin says below, "Once you start with openings, there is no way out." While I wouldn't say "no way out" when it comes to one's investing process, once you develop certain habits and a certain definition of what you think is worth spending time on, it can be hard to reverse course, so the time spent getting the theory and core principles behind one's process correct is vital.
Let’s return to the scholastic chess world, and focus on the ingredients to my early success. I mentioned that Bruce and I studied the endgame while other young players focused on the opening. In light of the entity/incremental discussion, I’d like to plunge a little more deeply into the approach that Bruce and I adopted.  
Rewind to those days when I was a six-year-old prankster. Once he had won my confidence, Bruce began our study with a barren chessboard. We took on positions of reduced complexity and clear principles. Our first focus was king and pawn against king— just three pieces on the table. Over time, I gained an excellent intuitive feel for the power of the king and the subtlety of the pawn. I learned the principle of opposition, the hidden potency of empty space, the idea of zugzwang (putting your opponent in a position where any move he makes will destroy his position). Layer by layer we built up my knowledge and my understanding of how to transform axioms into fuel for creative insight. Then we turned to rook endings, bishop endings, knight endings, spending hundreds of hours as I turned seven and eight years old, exploring the operating principles behind positions that I might never see again. This method of study gave me a feeling for the beautiful subtleties of each chess piece, because in relatively clear-cut positions I could focus on what was essential. I was also gradually internalizing a marvelous methodology of learning—the play between knowledge, intuition, and creativity. From both educational and technical perspectives, I learned from the foundation up.  
Most of my rivals, on the other hand, began by studying opening variations. There is a vast body of theory that begins from the starting position of all chess games, and it is very tempting to teach children openings right off the bat, because built into this theoretical part of the game there are many imbedded traps, land mines that allow a player to win quickly and easily—in effect, to win without having to struggle to win. At first thought, it seems logical for a novice to study positions that he or she will see all the time at the outset of games. Why not begin from the beginning, especially if it leads to instant success? The answer is quicksand. Once you start with openings, there is no way out. Lifetimes can be spent memorizing and keeping up with the evolving Encyclopedia of Chess Openings (ECO). They are an addiction, with perilous psychological effects.  
It is a little like developing the habit of stealing the test from your teacher’s desk instead of learning how to do the math. You may pass the test, but you learn absolutely nothing—and most critically, you don’t gain an appreciation for the value or beauty of learning itself.